From Bebe, The Happy Flapper, To Eloise, The Practical Dreamer
By Janis Gingermountain
I wrap up in the soft gold cable-knit afghan my mother made many years ago. It’s good for a lot of memories. Eloise, the knitter, that’s how she was known. Sweaters, caps, socks, coats, jackets, mittens; they all flew off her needles. She could watch high school basketball games coached by my dad, scream at the referees, knit away, and never drop a stitch, much to the amazement of those seated around her. She never looked at her knitting, never took her eyes off the game.
In 1947 our little, unknown team, the Ashtabula Panthers, reached the finals of the state basketball tournament. During an especially tense series of plays an annoying reporter kept badgering my mother. “How does it feel to be the wife of a coach in the state basketball tournament?” he asked. “I’d like to watch the state tournament, if you don’t mind,” she retorted.
My mother, “Bebe,” the happy flapper, was, in her youth, the piano-tinkling, ukulele-strumming center of any high school or college party. Her favorite uke song was “Anybody Seen My Kitty?” All set to enter Ohio Wesleyan University to study home economics, Bebe was forced to go instead to Mt. Union College, close to home, as her mother had died of kidney disease that summer. Mt. Union had no home economics department, so she ended up majoring in, of all things, Latin.
Gradually, as her sadness abated, Bebe slithered out of the Victorian constraints of her mother’s and aunts’ long skirts and Gibson Girl blouses into shifts for shimmying, out of hair coils, pins, and millinery into a sleek, bouncy bob with marcelled waves.
Bebe won the admiration of “Curly,” a suave, popular four-letter man, whom she taught all the latest Charleston dance steps. When he called at her dormitory after a rare football defeat, one hello kiss told her he had been drinking—just one beer to drown his sorrows, he told her dejectedly, but she turned away and said goodnight.
A big social event of the college year was the Co-Ed Prom, in which all the college girls dressed either as flirty coeds or as handsome tuxedoed men. “Bebe,” one of the event’s organizers, dressed as a man, with a little mustache.
Bebe did marry Curly, that dreamy athlete guy, in the end. They eloped to West Virginia on a balmy May day in 1931. By then she was teaching Latin in a small-town high school. Teachers in her school system were not allowed to marry, so secrets were kept.
Finally , a more-subdued Bebe, by this time sedately claiming her given name Eloise, joined high school English teacher Curly in Ashtabula on Lake Erie. She also claimed her duties as a wife: scrubbing and dusting till everything shone. Her creativity still emerged in little spurts: playing “Sabre Dance” on a junkyard piano; knitting intricate argyle patterns; playing a mean hand of bridge; and dreaming of starting a doughnut shop, a motel, or a yarn shop.
Eloise cross-stitched a sign for the kitchen, “NO MATTER WHERE I SERVE MY GUESTS IT SEEMS THEY LIKE MY KITCHEN BEST.” And indeed her guests did. Eloise, aka Bebe, soon became known as the best fruit pie baker around. An invitation to one of her dinners meant a piping hot slice of peach pie a la mode, or perhaps apple pie with a wedge of sharp cheddar.
At a time when collecting antique furnishings was just becoming popular, Eloise and her sister Peg were scouring old barns and sheds for flatirons, grain scoops, trivets, and white ironstone pitchers.
Babies came next: a girl and then a boy. Thrilled with me, Janis, and my brother Jeff, Eloise and Curly did what all parents do: they began to live through their children. Janis eventually became an adventurer, a scholar, and a poet, while Jeff became an outstanding athlete, one of the high school’s best basketball players ever. Once a year, all through their kids’ childhoods, Bebe and Curly packed them into the car and drove to a nearby lakeside resort, to Madsen’s Doughnuts, for their yearly doughnut treat. As they drove away Bebe always said, “Why don’t we start a doughnut shop? Or maybe a motel?”
Janis Gingermountain lives in a little log cabin at the edge of the woods and the edge of a field. She writes poetry and essays, gardens, and is always on the lookout for the next big adventure.